Reforming the Electoral Process
Continuing Legal Education Materials
Summary by Richard Rifkin, Legal Director, Government Law Center
For its third 2021 Warren Anderson Series program, the Government Law Center offered a comprehensive discussion dealing with elections in New York on April 26, 2021. Its focus was on the need for reforms to make it easier to vote and to increase the efficiency of election administration. The discussion included many details in the election process that, while technical, can have a significant impact on the results. Three speakers steeped in the electoral process offered their thoughts.
Nicholas Cartagena, Deputy Counsel at the State Board of Elections, spoke about some recent election law changes and the challenges in implementing those changes. With regard to the registration of voters, he noted that online voter registration had been authorized by the legislature, but it has yet to take effect. The mechanisms for accomplishing this goal need to be put into place. He also noted that automatic voter registration would be coming in the future. Under this reform, voters will automatically be registered when they use certain state services unless they opt out.
Cartagena also discussed some of the challenges that had arisen during the previous two years when early voting was first used. A number of problems arose that demonstrated the need for changes in both the law and the implementation of the law. He also spoke about absentee ballots and their extensive use in the 2020 elections. They may well become a standard mechanism for many voters if the pending constitutional amendment authorizing unlimited voting by this method is adopted. Finally, he briefly mentioned public financing, which, while authorized, is still a few years down the road.
Jennifer Wilson, Deputy Director of the State League of Women Voters, was the next speaker. She emphasized the need for uniformity throughout the state, noting that there were significant differences in the manner in which county boards of election administered elections even though they were following the same state laws. Among the reforms she proposed were prepaid postage for absentee ballots and increasing the use of drop boxes where absentee ballots could be deposited. As for early voting, she proposed additional hours and locations, although she recognized the need for funding to be able to institute these changes.
Finally, Josh Oppenheimer '06, a lawyer and shareholder in Greenberg Traurig, focused on the ability to cure mistakes made in the return of absentee ballots. While a significant change in the law has been adopted allowing corrections in these instances, many technical details still make the process less than perfect. The objective is to prevent voters who make technical errors from having their ballots rejected. Oppenheimer also discussed a new law that has not yet taken effect that requires hand recounts in close elections, with the requirements based on the difference in the votes received by each of the candidates in the initial vote count. He noted that a request to a court for a hand recount in the recent race in the 22nd congressional district, an extremely close race, was denied because the law was not yet in effect.
While all the speakers agreed that reforms were needed, the complexities of the election process make it difficult to implement many of these reforms, even when there is agreement that they are beneficial.